Keira Knightley gives voice to Charlotte Salomon, the German-Jewish painter who said she killed her own grandfather after he abused her, in a powerful but flawed biopic
This powerful but flawed animation depicts the brilliant German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, creator of a remarkable series of quasi-autobiographical gouaches entitled Life? or Theatre?, painted in the period of her exile in Vichy France from 1941 to 1943, before she was taken to Auschwitz and there murdered at the age of 26; the paintings themselves are now held in Amsterdam’s Jewish Museum.
The movie is part of a vital tradition of representing the Holocaust through powerful animated images, stemming back to Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus. Screenwriters Erik Rutherford and David Bezmozgis have worked from the narrative suggested by the artwork, but also from a confessional document that remained unpublished until 2015, in which Salomon revealed, among other things, that she murdered her grandfather. The directors are TV animators Tahir Rana (making his feature debut) and Éric Warin; Keira Knightley (and Marion Cotillard in the French language version) voices Salomon, who was a talented young artist in early 1930s Berlin. Her father Albert (Eddie Marsan) is a prosperous doctor and decorated first world war veteran, and stepmother Paula is a renowned classical singer; she is voiced by Helen McCrory, in her final film role.
As the Nazi tyranny tightens, Charlotte is sent away by her parents to live in the south of France with her ailing, stricken grandmother (Brenda Blethyn) and glowering, increasingly angry grandfather (Jim Broadbent), a man embittered by the injustices of fate, antisemitic abuse and by the terrible history of suicide in the family, which has been kept secret from Charlotte. The three live initially in a handsome villa owned by a sympathetic American patron, Ottilie Moore (Sophie Okonedo), and it is in France that Charlotte begins to pour out her soul in her paintings, and where she (by her own admission) later killed her widowed grandfather.
This is an absorbingly told story; Knightley’s vocal performance is engaging and Charlotte’s face, in particular, is strongly and expressively drawn. But the film arguably fudges one of the most important issues of Charlotte’s life: her grandfather’s abusive relationshipwith her. It is shown here as mere unpleasant bad temper and cruel invective on his part, but Salomon, in the same posthumously published manuscript that is a source for the murder scene, indicated that he wanted to share her bed.
The film-makers have argued that there is not enough clear evidence for sexual abuse for this to be included. That is legitimate artistic prerogative. Creative licence is in any case in the spirit of the paintings themselves. But having taken at face value Charlotte’s claim to have poisoned her grandfather, it is disconcerting for this film to ignore abuse as motive, to omit any indication of the dysfunctional and predatory behaviour that would certainly explain Charlotte’s killing him. The murder is frankly unmotivated here; and even if it were supposed to be a type of euthanasia, a mercy killing for a wretched and defeated old man, that too is unsatisfactorily represented. It does not, though, detract from the wider force and sympathy of the story being told.